It all began long ago with a pair of eyeglasses.
Tokugawa Ieyasu, who ruled Japan in the early 1600s, acquired a new pair for himself with frames delicately crafted from the carapace of a hawksbill sea turtle. Soon everyone wanted tortoiseshell—bekko, with its pleasing hues of browns, oranges, and whites—and Japanese artisans were fashioning everything from combs and cigarette boxes to all kinds of trinkets.
The fad spread to Europe and the Americas. By the mid-1800s, the trade was roaring, and Japan was regarded as having the finest bekko artisans in the world. As the trade burgeoned, wild populations of hawksbill sea turtles plummeted, and they were listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2008.
Between 1844 and 1992, more than nine million were killed, in large part for the tortoiseshell trade, according to a recent study. Hawksbill numbers have continued to plummet, to fewer than 25,000 as of this year. Other than the bekko trade, the main threats to hawksbills are bycatch; loss of nesting habitat; and water pollution, which causes death from accidental ingestion of plastic and other human trash. (Read how sea turtles are surviving despite us in the October issue of National Geographic.)
And yet in the small fishing village of Enoshima, 30 miles south of Tokyo, and other towns and cities along the coast, taxidermied sea turtles and finely carved tortoiseshell jewelry are displayed prominently in souvenir shop windows.
Every year, thousands of tourists flock here to visit colorful shrines and to peruse the gift shops. Many buyers, perhaps nearly all of these visitors, are unaware of the dire situation facing these animals—and how crucial the reptiles are to the ocean ecosystem.
Found throughout the tropics, hawksbill sea turtles feed mainly on sponges that compete with coral species for growing space. Their absence undermines coral reefs, which hold more than 25 percent of known sea life and likely contributes more than 375 billion dollars annually to the world economy, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
In 1977, international commercial trade in hawksbills and their parts was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates cross-border trade in wildlife.
In 1980, when Japan signed onto CITES, it took a formal reservation from hawksbill sea turtle trade regulations to preserve its thriving bekko industry. That meant the country could continue to import hawksbills and remain in good standing with CITES.
In 1994, international pressure finally forced Japan to withdraw its reservation. Hawksbill imports immediately spiked, according to Traffic, the wildlife trade-monitoring organization, as Japanese artisans and collectors prepared for the end of the legal trade, and Japan stockpiled its hawksbill product.
That stockpile was intended to supply the industry into the future. Meanwhile, the domestic trade, which is legal, continued. Two other countries, Grenada and Palau, also allow a legal domestic hawksbill trade.
According to the Sea Turtle Conservancy, a Florida-based conservation organization, the tortoiseshell trade remains an ongoing threat to hawksbill recovery despite significant progress in reducing the global volume of trade. Hawksbill populations have not received sufficient protection to begin to recover, and lack of management and law enforcement are major challenges. (Read how sea turtles are declining, but there’s still hope.)
Every legal turtle product for sale in Japan must have one of two origins. The raw or carved item must have been acquired before the 1994 import ban, or the live turtle must have been collected within Japanese waters.
Given the ubiquity of sea turtle products on sale since 1994, “the standing bekko stockpile should now be exhausted, but the industry remains intact, and demand for tortoiseshell items is high,” says Marydelle Donnelly, head of international policy at the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
Several large confiscations, accounting for more than a ton of hawksbill products, have been made in the Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaki airports since 1994, according to Traffic. Coincidentally, during recent decades, the Coral Triangle in and around Indonesia has seen a 90 percent reduction in hawksbill populations among the reefs. Indonesian officials did not respond to National Geographic’s requests for comment.
Helping hand for bekko
To support bekko manufacturers in the post-ban era, government-sponsored organizations, such as the Japanese Bekko Association, were formed. Their original intent was to research alternative materials to tortoiseshell for artisans to use, such as synthetic materials and plastics.
But as the Japanese Wildlife Conservation Society, a Japan-based conservation organization, reports, efforts were soon being made to bolster the shrinking hawksbill stockpile. The Japanese Bekko Association sent lobbyists to international conferences with the goal of reducing hawksbill protections under CITES, reopening the trade with Cuba (attempted unsuccessfully in 1997, 1999, and 2002) and to lobby local Japanese prefectures to permit further domestic exploitation of turtle populations for bekko. (Read how tracking hawksbills by satellite can help save them from poachers.)
The Japanese Bekko Association has also explored the viability of turtle farming as another way to acquire tortoiseshell legally. Hatchlings from eggs collected from sea turtles are reared with the aim of harvesting the shells of the mature adults decades later, as hawksbills can live for up to 50 years.
The amount of time, resources, and patience needed for this is staggering, says Brad Nahill, president of SEE Turtles, a U.S. community-based conservation organization.
“We don’t believe that hawksbill ranching is a viable alternative; it has proved to be a very slow and expensive process that would need to begin with eggs from hawksbill nesting beaches, which would further impact wild populations,” he says.
The trade in sea turtle products isn’t limited to bekko. Whole taxidermied specimens are sold in Japan as curios. Since 1994, sellers are obligated to report the origin of each turtle to the Law for Conservation of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna, Japan’s authority for regulating the domestic sale of wildlife products.
If the specimen is sourced from Japanese waters, official documentation is not required. According to Traffic, this process exposes a critical loophole in assuring the legality if the trade, as sellers will offer illegal products for sale under the presumption that they were sourced locally. The Japanese government did not respond to requests for comment.
No current form of government regulation exists for wholesale and retail level trade of finished bekko products, making it impossible to differentiate between items made from authentic or illegally smuggled products, according to the Japanese Wildlife Conservation Society.
The Sea Turtle Conservancy’s Donnelly says an educated public is any sea turtle’s strongest ally: Understanding the relationship between wild populations and wildlife-derived products is key in preventing the exploitation of vulnerable populations, she says. It’s unclear, however, whether any major education campaigns are underway in Japan. (Learn more about why life is so tough for sea turtles.)
Nahill agrees, noting “the tortoiseshell trade can be ended with a combination of strong laws and enforcement combined with education of consumers.”
For instance, Cartagena, Colombia—once a hotbed of sea turtle trade in the Americas—saw an 80 percent reduction in trade over a five-year period, thanks to targeted educational programming and community development, Nahill says.
Knowing which products are authentic and refraining from buying them will help prevent further declines of sea turtles.
“Hopefully the government of Japan soon realizes that the tortoiseshell market is unsustainable,” he adds, “and ends it once and for all.”
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.